By Gordon Lubold, Michael R. Gordon and Nancy A. Youssef
You own the clock,’ president was told by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; last-minute intelligence forced a change in plans
WASHINGTON—After 10 days of deliberations, President Biden had ordered the Pentagon to conduct airstrikes on two targets inside Syria Feb. 26 when an aide delivered an urgent warning about 30 minutes before the bombs were scheduled to fall.
A woman and a couple of children were in the courtyard at one of the sites, according to battlefield reconnaissance. With the F-15Es in flight to the targets, Mr. Biden scratched the second target but ordered the strike on the first objective to proceed.
The previously undisclosed episode involving Mr. Biden’s first known use of force as commander in chief was an unexpected coda to a methodical decision-making approach in which the Biden administration sought to balance competing interests in the Middle East tinderbox.
The goal was to signal to Iran that the new White House team would respond to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq against the U.S.-led coalition but wasn’t seeking to escalate a confrontation with Tehran, senior administration officials said, describing the days leading to the strike in interviews with The Wall Street Journal.
To reinforce the point, a confidential message was sent to Tehran after the U.S. airstrike, administration officials disclosed, without providing details.
“We had a pretty coordinated diplomatic and military plan here,” one administration official said. “We made sure the Iranians knew what our intent was.”
Another key objective was to avoid undermining the political position of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whom Washington sees as a partner in the fight against Islamic State and would likely have faced criticism at home if the attacks had occurred on Iraqi territory, the officials added.
From the start, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East who is the only senior member of Mr. Biden’s cabinet with military experience, reassured the president that he could take his time to decide how to respond militarily.
“You own the clock,” Mr. Austin advised Mr. Biden in the White House meeting immediately following the attack in Erbil, according to a second administration official, who participated in the session.
Throughout the deliberations, officials said, they sought to strike a bureaucratic balance. The goal was to ensure that all of the interagency machinery was fully engaged while avoiding both the drawn-out deliberations that sometimes occurred during the Obama administration and the quick decisions by the president and smaller groups of aides that often took place during the Trump administration.
“We knew that this was the first time we were going to be making a decision like this and that we would be under a lot of scrutiny,” the second official said.
Some of the scrutiny has come from Congress. Sens. Tim Kaine (D., Va.) and Todd Young (R., Ind.), who have long argued that the legal basis for U.S. military force in the Middle East is outdated, introduced legislation this week to restrict presidential authorities.
Other lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended Mr. Biden’s decision while saying Congress should have received greater advance notice. Mr. Warner said he learned of the strike 15 minutes beforehand.
Mr. Biden sent a letter to Congress a day afterward explaining the strike was needed to defend American troops, and the White House said this week it is still briefing lawmakers and aides. “We are happy to continue those conversations,” a White House official said.
At the end of the administration deliberations last week, Mr. Biden picked the most conservative option: strikes that avoided Iraqi territory and that were timed, in the middle of the night, to minimize any casualties. Pentagon officials later said one militia fighter was killed and two injured.
At the same time, the Biden administration is taking a more expansive view of when military action may be taken, setting no specific threshold. Former President Donald Trump frequently signaled that his so-called red line for military action was the death of an American overseas. Biden administration officials said they didn’t want the Iranians to think that attacks on the U.S.-led coalition were tolerable as long as no American is killed.
“We preserve a degree of flexibility for ourselves,” said the second administration official.
With the military strike Friday, U.S. officials believe they sent a clear message to Tehran and its Iraq-based proxies to stop the attacks. But Wednesday, a militia group lobbed at least 10 rockets at the sprawling al-Asad air base in western Iraq. A contractor suffered a cardiac episode and died while in a shelter during the attack, officials said.
Since taking office in January, White House officials expected the Biden administration to be tested by Shiite militia groups, many sponsored by Iran, in the region.
U.S. forces had returned to Iraq to advise Iraqi forces after Islamic State militants took Mosul in June 2014.
After ISIS’s self-styled caliphate was destroyed and the Trump administration imposed its maximum pressure campaign to try to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, an Iran-backed militia in 2019 rocketed a base where U.S. and coalition forces were deployed, killing a U.S. contractor.
That and the fear of future attacks prompted the Trump administration to launch a series of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, including one in Baghdad that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Still, the rocket attacks in Iraq continued, including one in March 2020 at Camp Taji that killed two U.S. troops and a British soldier, leading to a U.S. retaliatory strike two days later.
On Feb. 15, militants targeted the Erbil airport in northern Iraq with more than a dozen munitions, some of which slammed into living quarters. The attack killed a foreign contractor and wounded seven Americans, including a U.S. service member, a Pentagon official said.
The next day, Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to the Oval Office when Mr. Biden received his daily intelligence briefing. Mr. Austin said there was no need to respond immediately and that Mr. Biden could take the time to calculate what action to take.
On Feb. 18, deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer led a meeting of sub-Cabinet officials, including military intelligence officials and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, who participated by videoconference. The next day, national security adviser Jake Sullivan convened a “principals meeting” of top officials.
On Feb. 20, four rockets targeted Balad Airbase in Iraq. No U.S. troops were based there, but the facility hosts hundreds of Western contractors. One American was wounded, reinforcing the growing recognition within the administration that there would need to be some sort of military response.
Over the next two days, options to hit targets in Iraq and Syria were refined. On Feb. 23, Mr. Biden met with top officials in the Oval Office, including Mr. Austin, Gen. Milley, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Finer and Brett McGurk, the top NSC official for the Middle East.
Mr. Biden called the Iraqi prime minister the same day to discuss the protection of U.S. personnel and Washington’s willingness to help with the Iraqi investigation into the Erbil attack.
U.S. officials decided there was less risk for their Iraqi partners by striking inside of Syria, where the militias that were tied to the Erbil strike also operated in easy-to-spot positions near the Syria-Iraq border.
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On the morning of Feb. 25, Mr. Biden and top officials met in the Situation Room for about an hour. Mr. Austin, who was traveling in California, participated in the discussion remotely.
Mr. Biden received the final options and an assessment of the risks, and discussed the possible diplomatic fallout, including messaging to Iran. There was a discussion of the number of targets to hit. Mr. Biden decided to focus on the two targets in Syria, the most conservative of the array of options, and the strike was set for that night.
With F-15Es in the air, the information came in that women and children had been observed at the second target.
It was 30 minutes before the attack, and Mr. Sullivan conveyed the intelligence to the president. Mr. Biden needed to quickly decide whether to cancel the strike or proceed with a lone target. Mr. Austin recommended hitting the one target. Around 1:30 a.m. Syria time, the attack took place.
Shiite militant groups issued a statement saying they were not surprised by the strike and minimized its effect. Iran over the weekend denounced the strike as illegal.
The day after the strike, Mr. Biden publicly reiterated the message the U.S. has sent confidentially to Tehran. “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.”
LEAD-UP TO BIDEN ADMINISTRATION STRIKE
- Feb. 15: Iranian-backed militia attacks Erbil airport, killing a contractor and wounding at least seven Americans.
- Feb. 16: President Biden meets with Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and the NSC team.
- Feb. 17: Intelligence agencies work to assess which Iran-backed militias might have carried out the attack. The Pentagon works on possible military responses.
- Feb. 18: Deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer leads a committee meeting of deputies on possible options.
- Feb. 19: National security adviser Jake Sullivan leads a principals committee meeting to review options.
- Feb. 20: At least four rockets target Balad Airbase, wounding at least one U.S. contractor.
- Feb. 20-22: U.S. officials refine options.
- Feb. 23: Mr. Biden convenes an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Austin, Gen. Milley, Ms. Haines and the NSC team to review options
- Feb. 23: Mr. Biden calls Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. At least one rocket targets the Green Zone in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy is located. The Pentagon finalizes options.
- Feb. 25: Mr. Biden decides on the options in a meeting in the Situation Room with Ms. Harris and top officials. Allies are notified. Some lawmakers are notified shortly before the attack. A post-strike message is sent to Iran.